The bay area CyberRays were celebrating last Saturday, jumping rhythmically on the victory stand at Foxboro Stadium in the manner of champion soccer teams around the world, when defender Brandi Chastain pulled teammate Tisha Venturini close and defined the moment. Their team had just won the first Women's United Soccer Association championship on penalty kicks after a 3-3 thriller against the Atlanta Beat, and as fireworks boomed above the crowd of 21,078, Chastain screamed, "You know what? This is the most special moment on a soccer field that we've ever had!"
Really? Even better than the one on July 10, 1999, when Chastain's World Cup-winning, jersey-shedding, Title IX-affirming penalty kick that brought the women's game into the mainstream? Yeah, really. "The World Cup happens every four years," Chastain explained later, while admiring the newly forged Founders Cup trophy. "This league will be going every summer, and there will be a champion every year. To me, it is so important for young girls to be able to come to the stadiums on a regular basis, not just every four years."
This time, however, Chastain didn't have to take her team's final penalty kick to clinch the win—"Thank God," she said—an honor that went instead to Bay Area's fourth-round kicker, Julie Murray, the Australian striker who was named the Founders Cup MVP. In scoring nine goals during the regular season, Murray helped prove that it's one thing for the WUSA to sign the best women's soccer players in the world and another to get them playing with precision on the same team. Mia Hamm's Washington Freedom, for example, finished tied for last at 6-12-3, in part because the team's Brazilian forwards, Pretinha and Roseli, were spectacular busts, unable to develop any chemistry with their American teammates.
The CyberRays were different. "Before I got here, besides Brandi and Tisha and [goalkeeper] LaKeysia Beene, I didn't know any of the American players," Murray said last week, "but I thought the best teams would be the ones that integrated their international and American and college players the best." After a 1-4-1 start Bay Area coach Ian Sawyers added a third forward ( Fresno State alumna Christina Bell) and moved Chastain from midfielder back to defender. Suddenly the CyberRays' cosmopolitan lineup, which included Murray and Dianne Alagich from Australia and Katia and Sissi from Brazil, began to cohere, and the San Jose-based squad lost only twice in its last 17 matches.
No play in the tide game better demonstrated Bay Area's tight teamwork than Bell's perfect 30-yard through-ball to a sneaking Murray, who coolly dribbled around Beat goalkeeper Briana Scurry and tied the score at two near the end of a wild first half. "Belly knew I was going to be there, and vice versa," Murray said. "She knows what I can do and what I can't, and that comes from time spent on the field together."
For the league at large, there were other insights to be gained in Year One, to wit:
The WUSA struggled to establish itself nationally. Though it exceeded its modest attendance goal of 7,500 per game, averaging 8,133 in its eight cities, the WUSA attracted only three national sponsorships-half its targeted number—and averaged a puny 0.4 Nielsen rating for its broadcasts on TNT and CNN/SI. "We did a pretty good job of branding teams in their markets, but we didn't do that across the country," WUSA chief operating officer Tony DiCicco said last Saturday. "We had quite a few potential sponsors at this game, and we hope to capitalize on that."
Hamm got it done at the turnstiles but not on the field. Though Hamm was clearly the WUSA's attendance savior—the Freedom drew an average of 12,748 fans at home and away, 57% more than the league-wide mark—she scored only six goals in 19 games (10th in the league) for the dismal Freedom, despite taking more shots than all but four players. "Mia needs to be told, 'Your job is to score goals,' " says DiCicco, her former U.S. coach, noting that Hamm played out of position as a midfielder for the first half of the season. "From a league standpoint we also could have done a better job of deflecting all me attention she got. Next year you'll see renewed energy from her."
Which means that the worlds best player is... New York Power forward Tiffeny Milbrett, whose 16 goals led the WUSA and earned her the league MVP award. In fact, if world governing body FIFA were to adopt the idea of naming a World Player of the Year for women as it does for men, the last four awards would have gone to Hamm (1998), China's Sun Wen ('99) and Milbrett (2000 and '01). The mystery is why the electrifying and personable Milbrett has yet to enjoy the mass appeal of Hamm or, for that matter, U.S. teammates Chastain and Julie Foudy. Give her time, though: She's only 27 and will be in her prime when the 2003 World Cup rolls around.
The level of play improved as the season progressed. Despite a shaky first month in which teams struggled to score—and often to string together more than three passes in a row—the two semifinal play-offs and the title game were all dynamite theater, featuring chest-clutching finishes and 5-3 goals per match. It's also worth noting that the U.S. national team roster for next week's U.S. Cup includes nine players whose call-ups were solely the result of their performance in the WUSA.